A Family Fights for School Choice

In Chicago, the Jenkinses are suing for vouchers to buy a better education for their children

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BOTH John and Michelle Jenkins consider themselves law-abiding, patriotic citizens. But two years ago they defiantly pulled their two school-age children out of the crime-ridden public school in their neighborhood and enrolled them at a better city school on Chicago's north side.

"We just wanted our children to have a quality education," says Mrs. Jenkins. Now the family is taking its plea for better education to the courts. They are the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit charging that the Chicago schools have denied poor students a "high quality" education, as called for in the state constitution.

"To have the kids in the inner city denied access to the same quality education as more affluent Americans is a travesty," Mr. Jenkins says. "It's immoral. People in this community don't love their children any less than anybody else."

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Ten-year-old Noreen and seven-year-old John III used to attend Grant Elementary School just across the street from Rockwell Gardens, the public-housing project where the family lives on the west side of Chicago.

"It's the Wild West," Mr. Jenkins says of the neighborhood. Drug dealing is rampant, and gunfire echoes through the streets. Grant Elementary isn't immune from crime either. "I saw open drug sales in the school," he says. Gang violence frequently spills over to the school grounds.

Students at the school consistently score below the state average on standardized tests. When Noreen was in second grade, she brought home the same worksheet in January that she received in September, recalls her mother.

"My kids went across the street hungry ... to learn," Mr. Jenkins says. Before long they both began to dread school.

The family couldn't afford to move, so they started looking into magnet schools or other special programs. "We tried to go the regular route the way we were supposed to," Mrs. Jenkins says. Nothing was available.

"You have to be on some kind of endangered species list or something to get your child in a better school," Mr. Jenkins says.

Noreen began making up excuses to stay home. "I kept questioning myself: `Why am I sending her over there every day when she learns more at home?' " says her mother.

The Jenkinses' apartment may well contain more educational material than the average inner-city classroom. Cardboard replicas of the solar system and a world globe hang from the living-room ceiling. Educational posters and maps line the walls.

"We are the primary educators of our children," points out Mr. Jenkins. "We want the best possible citizens, that's what we want," he says of his four children.

"And if we can't get help from the school across the street to do that, then we're going to go wherever we can to try and make sure it happens."

Out of desperation, the Jenkinses decided to use false documentation to enroll Noreen and John at Ogden Elementary School on the affluent north side. "I had no other choice," says Mr. Jenkins.

When asked what she'd like to be when she grows up, Noreen, a serious, thoughtful fifth-grader, doesn't hesitate. "There are about a million things," she says. "One is an astronaut, or a baby doctor, or a chemist."

"She has all these interests," says her mother. "And I think that if she expresses this to me and I do absolutely nothing about it, then you can call me a negligent parent."

Noreen and John have flourished at the more suburban Ogden School. Noreen joined the computer club and the chorus, activities that don't exist at Grant.

THE difference between the two schools is "like day and night," Mr. Jenkins says. It's worth the early mornings and nearly an hour of commuting on two crowded trains each way, the family agrees.

But last year school officials discovered that John and Noreen were illegally enrolled at Ogden and threatened to send them back to Grant. Mr. Jenkins retaliated with a threat of his own. "I was in tears in the principal's office, and I was very serious when I said we would chain ourselves to the door if they were kicked out."

The principal relented, and late last school year, after involving Chicago school superintendent Ted Kimbrough, John and Noreen gained legal admittance to Ogden.

This is not enough for Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins, however. They'd like to enroll their children in a private school. But they can't afford the tuition. So they've joined the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based advocacy group, in the legal battle for school choice (see story at left).

In the Illinois case, the Jenkinses are asking for their "pro rata" share of the state's education funding. This amounts to about $2,500 per student, which would be used for private-school tuition or at the public school of their choice.

"As long as there is no competition, the school system will never change," Mr. Jenkins has concluded. "Educational choice is the only thing that can empower parents like myself."

It's just been in the last year that the Jenkinses have become school-choice advocates. "I didn't know I was a choice person at first," Mr. Jenkins says. "The only think I knew was that I wanted the best possible education for my daughter. We went shopping first in the public schools. But we were constantly stonewalled and treated like we were the problem."

What would he gain if the lawsuit succeeds? "I would get power and respect that I don't get now," Mr. Jenkins responds. "I'm taken for granted now as a parent.... But if I get that money, I will get respect, because I will take my child to the best possible school. And they will say, `Wait a minute. I've got to stop ignoring Mr. Jenkins and Mrs. Jenkins ... if I want that money to come back to the school.'"

Mrs. Jenkins is motivated by her own experience as a Chicago public-school student. "I was always told that I was the smartest one in my class," she says. "I was really proud of myself. In eighth grade, I graduated valedictorian."

She was encouraged to attend one of the city's better high schools. "So I passed the test ... and when I got in there these kids were light years ahead of me. I felt so lost and frustrated.... They had told me all this time how smart I was, and when I got up in high school, I couldn't figure out what happened to me. Why didn't I know this? Why didn't I know that? It was just devastating for the whole four years."

All around her, Mrs. Jenkins sees people struggling to live without an adequate education. "People can't read. They can't write. They have absolutely no skills to seek employment," she says. "That is the most terrifying thing I have ever seen. And I am determined not to let that happen to my children."

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